It can be excellent for people with the same mental illness to be around each other or be friends. This is beneficial is because those two people will have something in common that most people are not familiar with. They will be able to share coping skills, insights, affirming words of wisdom, and empathy. Because of having a shared perspective, mentally ill friends are more likely to feel less alone in their struggle because they have a friend by their side who has struggled in the same ways they do.
For example, during my last stay in a psychiatric hospital (in 2008), seven of the other nine people on the ward were bipolar like me. We had a very good and helpful time with each other by sitting around sharing our stories. I think I healed more from spending time with them than from the daily group therapy sessions. There was no infighting or hostility. Some bipolar people are mean or hostile, but it is not a symptom of bipolar. Those people would be mean and hostile without bipolar. Basically, some people just suck, and some of the people who suck happen to be bipolar (or blonde, or Chinese, or left-handed, or optimistic… get it?). It was incredibly helpful to me to be around all these vastly different people who shared my struggle. Some of them were people I never would have talked to on my own, but since we had this massive thing in common, I gained wisdom from everyone there, even those who had very different opinions, levels of education, and political leanings than I do.
For another example, my best friend has several mental illnesses, some the same as I do and some different, but our episodes and symptoms overlap many ways in their presentation, so we have a lot in common. It helps both of us to be able to relate and to share important skills for coping with our episodes and symptoms. She has gotten hostile and angry a couple of times when she was severely manic and suicidal, and I did not get upset with her because I knew her feelings were coming from a place of deep pain inside her episode. When you’re suicidal in an episode, you’re in so much pain that you need to die that very minute because what you feel is literally unbearable. That’s why people try to commit suicide in episodes. I would never hold her feelings against her. Sometimes one or both of us are doing so poorly that we cannot talk on the phone or even acknowledge our phones. We have significant others who are pillars of support in these times, so it’s okay if I’m upset and I can’t reach her, or vice versa, because we share that struggle and would never blame each other for having symptoms of our mental illnesses.
It is often very beneficial for mentally ill people to be around other people with mental illnesses. If you need more of those people in your life, you can seek them out through local mental health support groups that you can find if you google “mental health support groups in my area” or something more specific, like “bipolar support groups in (your city and state)”. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, is an organization in the U.S. that advocates for better mental health for the public, so you could also search “NAMI groups” with your city added to the search. The NAMI site itself is a place you can find out about all kinds of support, including classes, discussion groups, and other resources, so check out the site.
Give groups a try. They’re uncomfortable at the first meeting, but can be tremendously beneficial after that, and you can make friends with people who share your insight. Friends are an important part of your support network, so it’s well worth it to reach out to others who are empathetic, regardless of mental illness. Healthy people can be great additions to your support network, too. It’s just a plus if you find a friend who has had some of your thoughts or feelings.
By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter